Imagine a warm summer’s day early in the 20th century. You are sitting in the sunshine under a parasol, gazing at a glorious rose garden. The fragrance of the roses is in the air and you know that with your skill and paints you are going to recreate this amazing, colourful scene on paper. You do not know, however, that a century later your paintings will still be giving pleasure to many rose enthusiasts, gardeners and artists; that they will still be admiring ‘your garden’ on a chilly January day over a century later.
A small number of rose and gardening books from the late 19th and early 20th centuries were illustrated by garden artists. In this way their paintings have been preserved for a wider audience other than the individual owner. The development of photography, however, made the widespread use of painting gardens for illustration unnecesary and the increasing number of rose books feature the cheaper drab monochrome photographs. The colourful beauties from the painters ceased within a few years. Fortunately the enterprising authors and their few dedicated illustrators can still be appreciated.
Many individual roses have been painted as illustrations in the rose books but rose gardens are much fewer in number. It was fashionable in Victorian and Edwardian times to have ones beautiful garden painted by an accomplished artist and a good number of these have been used to illustrate various publications but rose gardens in the books at this time were few. This reflects the nature of garden design and the subject matter of rose books at this crucial period. Penelope Hobhouse and Christopher Wood explore the painters and their commissions during that period in their book ‘Painted Gardens: English Watercolours 1850 – 1914’. The painting of gardens professionally as opposed to landscapes now seems to have gone out of fashion.
Most illustrations of gardens for books have been contributed by three artists: Beatrice Parsons (1870-1955), George Samuel Elgood (1852-1943) and Ernest Arthur Rowe (1862-1922). These three have the joint accolade of being regarded as the best garden artists of their day. Beatrice Parsons painted glorious gardens, often with roses; six of these illustrate ‘Roses and Rose Gardens’ (1911) by Walter P. Wright. In this book there is also one painting by Ernest Rowe. George Elgood illustrated the later editions of ‘A Book About Roses’ (1869) but sadly these have been produced in monochrome which does not do them justice. Their paintings can be seen in a number of other books of the period and, of course, their works were sold to art collectors of the day, often the aristocracy including royalty. The interesting lives of these three artists are partly documented and it is likely they may appear in future articles. There is a biography ‘George Samuel Elgood: His Life and Work (1995) by Eve Eckstein. This includes many of his paintings.
There is a short list of other garden artists of the period; two others to be noted for painting Rose gardens are Alfred Parsons and Helen Allingham. Alfred Parsons was a prolific painter of gardens and landscapes, later becoming a garden designer. He is well known for the 132 meticulously executed roses for the publication Genus Rosa (1910-1914) by Ellen Willmott but does not appear to have received the fame he deserves. Helen Allingham is virtually a household name with her exquisite paintings of Victorian Life some of which feature roses in the cottage gardens she loved to paint. Two books in the Rosarian Library collection are ‘The Happy England of Helen Allingham’ by Marcus B. Huish and ‘Helen Allingham’s England’ by Ina Taylor. Both books, especially the latter are beautifully illustrated by Helen Allingham herself. There is little formal documentation about the life of Alfred Parsons but recently a thesis written in the 1990s was located which gives many leads for further research. A painter well worth investigating.
Paintings of rose gardens feature on early 20th century postcards, many of which are stunning works of art and very collectible. Beatrice and Albert Parsons (no relation) contribute to these but there are other artists worthy of note: Flora Pilkington, Sidney Shelton, W.G. Addison, Ellen Warrington and Annie Pressland are a few. There seems to be little known about these artists apart from their signatures on the bottom of the cards. This needs to be remedied as such skilful artists should be remembered.
(All postcards are in the Rosarian library.)
Spring and rose garden visiting time will soon be here but in the meantime it is great to know that these colourful, attractive gardens can be ‘visited’ by looking at books and postcards. Sitting in the sunshine painting was not and still is not a lucrative career but thankfully some people had this vocation all those years ago allowing us to appreciate and enjoy their work. Although there were relatively few professional garden painters they contribute significantly to the story of book illustration.